Apr 20, 2021

Teed Up and Let Down as St. Edward’s Eliminates Men’s Golf Program

Reporting Texas

Carson Vickers, a St. Edward’s University men’s golf commit for 2020-21 (Photo Credit/ Carson Vickers).

On April 15, 2020, Carson Vickers received a message at 7:30 a.m. from Chris Hill, the head coach of St. Edward’s University men’s golf. “They cut the golf team,” it read.

For a couple of hours, Hill’s five-word message was the only source of information for Vickers and his 14 teammates. That was until 11:45 a.m., when St. Edward’s sent out an official announcement stating that the effects of COVID-19 had forced the university to make “financially sound decisions for the future.” The private Jesuit school of about 4,000 undergraduate students in Austin, Texas, had eliminated men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s tennis and men’s soccer.

Vickers, a rising freshman, had no idea what to do or think. He was recruited his junior year of high school by Hill. He was looking to stay close to his hometown, the Austin suburb of Cedar Park. He thought St. Edward’s, a 30-minute drive away, provided the perfect opportunity to balance academics and golf at a program established in 1949.

Vickers was a four-year letterman for Cedar Park High School golf. He posted five career Top-10 finishes, including a first-place finish at the Shootout in the Hills at the Golf Club at Star Ranch, where he shot 7-under-par 64. He committed to St. Edward’s as a junior and signed his letter of intent in the fall of 2019.

Hill, the head coach, was as surprised as anyone. In an April 2020 interview with Kirk Bohls, a columnist at the Austin American-Statesman, Hill estimated men’s golf costs the university about $300,000 a year. He said his salary was $55,000, his travel budget was under $80,000 and he had only 2.4 scholarships divided among 15 roster spots at a school where tuition and fees cost about $49,000 annually.

Hill began his head coaching job at St. Edward’s in 2018. In his first year at the Division II program, Hill led the Hilltoppers back to the NCAA Division II Regional. As of February 2020, the men’s team was ranked inside the Top 25 nationally and No. 4 in its region.

In the abbreviated 2019-20 campaign under Hill, the Hilltoppers competed in seven tournaments and had five team finishes of third or better.

When Hill offered Vickers a spot on the 2020-21 Hilltoppers roster, Vickers’ collegiate aspirations shifted from vision to reality. Then came the pandemic.

“It was very surreal having that opportunity swiped right away from us,” Vickers said. “It was honestly hard to fathom.”

St. Edward’s wasn’t alone in its decision. COVID-19 posed financial challenges for higher education institutions nationwide. In order to stay afloat, many institutions first looked to slash nonrevenue athletic programs. The University of Akron, Brown University and Hampton University also cut men’s golf.

The St. Edward’s athletic department told the coaches of the eliminated teams that they could raise money to save their teams. The coaches were asked to come up with over $2 million per sport by May 31 to be reinstated for five years.

Then, shortly after the university’s decision to eliminate the team, former players organized an effort to save it. They drafted emails, made phone calls and also posted on social media.

One of those former players was Nick Cristea, who played golf for St. Edwards from 2003-07 after playing varsity golf at Cy-Fair High School in the Houston suburb of Cypress. Cristea studied chemistry at St. Edward’s, earned a master’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of Texas and later joined the advisory board in the St. Edward’s School of Natural Sciences. Now an engineer for Shell Oil Co. in Louisiana, he found out about the elimination of the golf in group text from Hill.

“We were dumbfounded,” Cristea said. “We started digging into more detail and tried to figure out what was the issue.”

One of Cristea’s teammates, Jeff Howard, also participated in the effort to save the team, which ultimately failed. Howard, who competed for St. Edwards from 2004-08 after playing at Plano West High School near Dallas, said he was a part of the effort to save the program because he didn’t want the current and future players to miss out on the experience that positively impacted his life.

“That program was extremely successful and meant a lot to all of us,” Howard said.

Part of that meaning came from the presence of Ryan Murphy, the head coach from 2005-2008. A four-year letterman at the University of New Mexico golf team, Murphy led St. Edward’s men’s golf to national prominence, including a third-place finish at the 2005 NCAA Division II National Championship in his first season. Over three seasons, Murphy had 11 team tournament wins, nine individual titles, two Heartland Conference championships and four berths in the NCAA championship.

One of those came in 2008 at Memorial Park Golf Course in Houston. Heading into the final round, St. Edward’s was 12 shots off the lead.

“We were in fourth or fifth place for most of the golf tournament, until the final nine holes,” Murphy said. “Just strangely, the guys started making birdie after birdie, and all the sudden we were tied.”

The Hilltoppers lost in a three-team playoff. That remains Murphy’s most cherished memory from St. Edward’s.

Now the head coach of the women’s team at the University of Texas, Murphy remains friends with many of his former players, including Howard and Cristea. Howard said he even does business with his former Hilltopper teammates. He said several alumni went to Austin every year to reconnect with each other and play in tournament fundraisers to benefit the men’s golf team.

“I got a ton of great relationships out of it,” Howard said. “There’s a ton of history in that program and it was only going to continue to get better. It brought national recognition to the school … and unfortunately, it’s just gone now.”

St. Edward’s honored the scholarships of all impacted student-athlete, like Carson Vickers of Cedar Hill, for the duration of their undergraduate enrollment at the university. Even without golf, Vickers and 11 of his would-be golf teammates proceeded to take their fall courses at St. Edward’s.

Vickers’ future is still in limbo. Despite his situation, his positivity never wavered.

“I vowed this was going to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” Vickers said.

Vickers turned to Chris Doherty, a golf performance coach at Active30, in June 2020 to improve the physical and mental sides of his game.

Doherty and Vickers meet weekly by video conference to reflect on previous achievements made and to set goals for the upcoming week. Doherty said they strategize how to be active off the course as well.

“He’s somebody now who understands that focusing on fitness, nutrition, recovery and great mindset habits have just as much to do with playing great golf,” Doherty said.

Brech Spradley, Vickers’s swing coach at the Barton Creek Golf Academy in Austin, said they’ve been able to work at an accelerated pace because Vickers isn’t playing collegiate golf.

“His golf swing has gotten exponentially better, especially in the last year,” Spradley said. “He’s building this swing that can play at the highest level.”

Vickers is actively pursuing transfer opportunities at 20 universities within Power Five Conferences where he could be part of a Division I program. Meanwhile, he’s taking road trips to tournaments across the West Coast to maintain his competitive edge.

While Vickers is unsure what his future in golf will hold, he’s confident he’s on the right course.

“I’m just glad I’m at St. Edward’s,” Vickers said. “Now, I’m in the position to be able to do anything from here.”

The St. Edward’s men’s golf program may never return. The lives of past, present and future student-athletes and coaches have been forever altered.

“It hurts,” Howard said.

He said Hilltopper golf gave him some of the best years of his life. Howard said he wanted that for the players who came behind him. Now they can’t. The team is gone.

But, he said, “hopefully not completely forgotten.”